It all starts at the top

There was an article in the Sunday Review of the NYTimes around education reform.  The gist of the article is that in order to fix schools, start with the Principal.  Something so obvious has been ignored for years but this type of thinking is starting to change among educators and local Government around the public school system.

I have been through several schools in the years from my days at MOUSE to going to visit Charter Schools to our own children’s school where I sat on the board.   There is no doubt that the Principal is the lead on how the school is managed from top down.

This type of thinking can also be applied to start-ups.  Cultures, management, and organization begin with the founder.  It is the founder who sets the tone from the employee handbook to collaboration between each department to gender diversity to mentorship.

Years ago I was at a 50th birthday party literally weeks after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  It was days before the 2008 Presidential election.  The anxiety and disdain for banks such as Goldman Sachs, Chase and others was written about on every front page.  This event had many CEO’s of financial organizations there.  Keep in mind this event was a costume party so I actually had zero idea who was who and truthfully even if they hadn’t been in costume I wouldn’t have known.

I was seated next to one of the most powerful bankers in the city.  Who knew?  We began to talk about the upcoming election.  His view was a bit different than mine.  He believed that it didn’t really make any difference if it was McCain or Obama.  I was curious how he could vote for a man who called Google “The Google”.   He said it didn’t make any difference because his team could run the country.  I pointed out that we just had a President who let Cheney (his assistant essentially) run the country and look how that turned out.  The reality is that Government, like companies, start at the top, like a fish that starts stinking from the head.   I mentioned that as well and to this day I am pretty sure nobody has ever spoken to that man like I did.  Perhaps he found it refreshing but I doubt it.  Fred got a good chuckle out of the whole thing.

We are seeing companies such as Uber with serious gender culture issues and we have President who tells lie after lie.   Cultures come from the top.  The issues inside Uber began with the founder.  Trump’s cabinet is full of liars because he embraces that behavior.  Schools that succeed point directly to the Principal.

If you are ever wondering where does anything start…it starts at the top.

Comments (Archived):

  1. LE

    This is so correct. No question it starts at the top and it permeates to the entire organization.I’ve told the story before of when I was a kid and drove my bike to the local shopping center where there was a ‘camera shop’ (remember those?). Around the same time (was the 70’s), a Fotomat [1] (developing kiosk) opened in the same shopping center parking lot. I got my film developed at the Fotomat. It was more convenient and cheaper. One time the film didn’t come out right so I went into the photo store and asked the ‘clerk’ for their opinion. He was quite nasty and didn’t want to help me. Clear to me now why that was but as a kid it wasn’t. [2] So I thought ‘wow I am going to tell his boss about what he did! He won’t like it!’. I told my Dad and he said ‘don’t bother doing that’. But I did anyway and viola the small store owner was even more upset and literally kicked me out of the shop. Now in that case we can see the soreness of why they did what they did. Lower priced competition. Fotomat took much of their traffic and profits. And this was in another place and time. But literally from that point on as a kid I have seen so many patterns of this being the case and learned the lesson. You get a certain treatment only to find later that higher ups confirm the treatment or poor service if you complain. No surprise.By the way this top down attitude permeates the computer industry in ways that you probably haven’t thought of. All of the shitty buggy products that we have are as a result of the very early 80’s pc push (by Microsoft and the clone makers) seeing that they could ship and push products out the channel that were not ready for prime time and allow customers to bear the brunt of the aggravation. Prior to that computers were more expensive and delivered and supported by large companies that couldn’t get away with that shit because of the price that they charged and the way the business operated. IBM, in a rush to not lose out, shoved the PC out and contracted with Microsoft for the software which was of course led by an immature Bill Gates (quite unusual at the time for someone that age not the same as now) who had no interest or care about the customer experience. Not something I read, something I lived through and saw happen.[1]…[2] Remember being a kid? My stepdaughter (12) took out the trash cans the other night in 20 degree weather and didn’t even wear shoes just socks.

  2. LE

    He said it didn’t make any difference because his team could run the country.Actually his response makes more sense than it doesn’t. If we can assume that by ‘powerful banker’ you mean ‘head of a bank’ or at least near the top of a big bank then he was almost certainly a big thinker type person and not someone who gets muddled in the details. Most execs are not Steve Jobs in this respect. They are running a big ship and rely on their resources to get things done. They don’t need to or even want to know these things. And they aren’t curious about it either. They are singularly focused on only a few things. And this isn’t only a big company phenomena either. But I think it’s more prevalent their and the ability to block out certain execution details (which is why things blow up often as you have noted).There is a story about Henry Kravitz (KKR) whereby he fires the head of a company that he had just acquired simply because that man asked him his opinion on signage…or something like that…at a hotel chain. Just for asking his opinion. Henry’s attitude (as I remember it from the book it was many years ago) was that he didn’t get involved at all in any details like that he just hired and/or acquired companies and expected that any person running those companies would make all of the right decisions. And the fact that someone asked him was evidence in his mind of having the wrong person running the company. Could have been an exaggeration but the base point remains true.

  3. Twain Twain

    We like to believe in grassroots democracy and that change happens there.I’ll say this, having worked in CEO-Chairman’s Office of UBS investment bank in my mid-20s, culture starts with the CEO and, in our smaller teams, it’s with the team’s CEO.I couldn’t have asked for a more phenomenal male manager. He set the foundations for how I work and the problems I can solve today.What Silicon Valley’s male CEOs don’t (yet) realize is THEY are as limited and held back by the biases and limitations of tools we’ve all inherited over 2000+ years as women and people from cultures that are different from SV’s are. https://uploads.disquscdn.chttps://uploads.disquscdn.chttps://uploads.disquscdn.c…Yeah, the “brilliant” male PhDs couldn’t and can’t solve the NLU problem. LOL.I’m on camera saying to Google Research’s PhD that maybe if they had a better sentiment classifier that would help them resolve their “induction variance” and syntactic-semantic problems. He’s on camera saying he doesn’t know how to do that — DOUBLE LOL. He looked pretty shocked I’d been able to follow their maths abstractions and threw him that curveball, by the way. It’s a case of “I am pretty sure nobody has ever spoken to that man like I did.”The reality is that even if they built a better sentiment classifier, they can’t get to NLU.Once my system is released, it’ll change the data culture of everything. Disrupting 2000+ years worth of autistic, logic tools that have helped but also hindered Humankind.

    1. Gotham Gal

      grassroots democracy….yes yes yes

      1. Twain Twain

        Separately, an AdTech PhD said he wanted to see Natural Language Generation ads by the AI overlayed on video clips — without the need for human inputs.I made the observation that advertising is an emotional experience and Natural Language Understanding hasn’t been solved. “The internal state of someone’s mind doesn’t matter. We can cut out the middle man of sentiment. We can just measure the rate of how many times they view the page. We don’t need to know what type of dopamine is in the mouse’s brain. The only thing that matters is they click on the button. It’s Skinner, right?” (referring to BF Skinner).— AdTech guy with PhD in AI, 08 March 2017, Galvanize meetup, SFSeriously, this is how male engineers have reduced us all to those mice in Skinner’s experiments.By this logic and cultural mindset, this means male engineers in SV are saying no one should feel anything about truth, “fake news,” democracy, brand loyalty etc. They didn’t design the machines to feel us and they certainly don’t understand our comments or values. They’re just designed to count and power law the human mouse clicks (and create echo chambers in the process).

        1. Cam MacRae

          The industry has been this way since John B. Watson joined JWT in 1920. Your adTech guy is positively old hat.

          1. Twain Twain

            Yup, he’s old hat.Christopher Graves, Chairman of Ogilvy, agrees with me: https://uploads.disquscdn.c…I had to look into the Ad industry circa 1920s because, as I was working through, how to get the machines to understand our language, cultures and values I discovered that a lot of data methods to do with socio-demographic, psychometric and opinion surveys originated during 1920s and 1930s and were directly linked to the Ad industry.Anyway, brands are currently boycotting Google YouTube because the AI that places ads doesn’t really understand the content so it’s placing the brands next to terrorists videos — whereby the brands are inadvertently financing terrorism with the whole SEO thing:* http://www.businessinsider….

  4. Pranay Srinivasan

    everyone including CEOs are prone to unconscious bias. Past experience, blind spots, anything.Good co-founders, good teams, great exec teams, good boards exist to point these blind spots out to the CEO so she doesnt slip into inertia.Culture starts from the top but also something shared so has to be fearless and inclusive.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Absolutely agree.

  5. jason wright

    ‘top’… defined.

  6. JLM

    .Cultures are not defined by the person at the top. They are defined by the VALUES of the person at the top.There are a goodly number of entrepreneurs, founders, CEOs who do not actually know their own values. No slur in that, they may never have been in a position to assess or develop values. They will grow out of it.In this manner, what they impose upon a company is not their unknown values, but literature. They make shit up that sounds great on a blog post and pretend those are their values.Values are those commitments which remain intact after the bleeding starts and the tariff for holding them appears. Until that happens, they are suggestions, ideas.Values to an organization are commandments. Commandments are not suggestions.There are no values until the leader lives them.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…